In 1980 at Rochester’s Oak Hill Country Club, Jack Nicklaus claimed his fifth PGA Championship. 23 years after, Shaun Micheel laced a brilliant 7-iron into the 18th hole to fend off a Chad Campbell challenge to Oak Hill’s second PGA hosting. 10 years further on, Jason Dufner confirmed for the world what it had long suspected and anticipated: that he had what it took to hoist a major event trophy. The third Wannamaker trophy to be awarded at the upstate New York club, was lifted by Dufner.
Would you be surprised if I told you that another PGA Championship had taken place in western New York? That it was held 73 miles to the west, 46 years prior to #JackIsBack. And, most important, it was decided on the club’s second green, which turned out to be the 38th hole of the day. If so, pick up your jaw and settle in, because I have a story for you.
1934 PGA Championship Promotional Poster
The Park Country Club of Buffalo was founded in 1903, in what is now Delaware Park, a Buffalo Olmsted Park. The club decided to move east as the city continued to grow, settling in at a bucolic tract along Sheridan Dr. in Williamsville. Clifford Wendehack designed one of his most notable clubhouses there, and Charles Alison was entrusted with the laying out of the golf course. Seven years after it opened, the Park Club’s Williamsville Course was entrusted to host one of the game’s great championships.
In 1934, the PGA Championship was decided at match play. The tournament began on Tuesday, July 24th, and the field was reduced to the top 31 qualifiers, plus the defending champion, Gene Sarazen. Sarazen had won the year before at the Seth Raynor-designed Blue Mound Country Club in Wisconsin. 114 golfers attempted to qualify via 36 holes of single-day, onsite qualifying. Bob Crowley of Massachusetts was the medalist, and Paul Runyan set the course record in the afternoon, with a 6-under 66. 10 players tied for the final eight spots in match play, and they met at 8 p.m., as the sun was setting, to determine who would advance.
1934 PGA Championship Program Cover
Beginning on Wednesday, all matches would reach 36 holes, unless the fates decided that a player was unable to overcome his opponent’s advantage. That first day saw one match exceed the mandated 36 holes, and one other match reach the 35th hole. The largest margin of victory was by 12 & 10, with Ky Laffoon of Arkansas coming out on top.
Day two of match play saw the defending champion exit at the hands of Al Watrous. The second day of match play saw a decidedly more-balanced set of competitions, with all matches reaching at least the 33rd green. Moving into the quarterfinals were Watrous, Craig Wood, “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper, Densmore Shute, Al Houghton, Dick Metz, Gene Kunes, and Bob Crowley. Of the remaining golfers, Paul Runyan figured into two interesting storylines. He was one of the hottest golfers on tour, with five titles to his name thus far that year. In addition, he had been Craig Wood’s student when he served as his assistant pro at Forest Hills Country Club.
Competitors on the practice putting green
Day three saw four golfers win their way into the semifinals. Al Watrous lost to Craig Wood by 2 & 1. Watrous would come close over the years, but would never win a major championship. Wood was a year away from being victimized by the shot heard ’round the world, Gene Sarazen’s electrifying 4-wood for double eagle at the Masters. The Lake Placid pro, Wood, received Densmore Shute as his semifinal-round opponent. Shute had won The Open in 1933 and would win a pair of PGA Championships in 1936 and 1937. At Park, he would lose to Wood by a 2 & 1 margin. The other semifinal pitted “Little Poison,” Paul Runyan, against Gene Kunes. Runyan would close Kunes out on the 16th green, by 4 & 2. Thus was the final match set, with the teacher and the student paired in combat.
The final match was a see-saw affair, with Wood taking a lead after the morning 18, only to see Runyan rally in the afternoon to square the match. Wood went back in front at the 11th hole of the afternoon 18, but Runyan won two of the next four holes to seize an advantage. At the uphill 17th, Wood nearly holed for two, but his three was enough to square the match. Nervy par putts from a dozen feet from both golfers sent the match to extra holes.
1934 PGA Championship winner Paul Runyan (left) receives Wannamaker trophy
Bob Morber, a long-time member of the Park Club, recalls a 1998 visit at the club with Paul Runyan, in which the eventual champion recounted how the bridge over Ellicott Creek was reserved for the competitors, and the gallery had to splash through the waters to follow the playoff. Both golfers made birdie at the par-5 1st hole, with Wood missing an eight-foot putt for eagle and the win. At the 38th hole of the day, Wood made a mess of things, eventually missing from 12 feet for par. Runyan made a birdie and became the 17th winner of the PGA Championship.
During his visit to the Park Club, Runyan also recalled how open the course was. As he reached the 14th tee, he asked when the trees went up along the left edge of the fairway. What had once been an open tee shot, was now compelled to go right, then back left. During the 2010s, Park Club undertook a restorative project with Ian Andrew as lead architect. Unnecessary trees were removed, sightlines were restored, and the course was returned to the strategic layout that Charles Alison had envisioned.
1934 PGA Championship final-match gallery around 18th green
Today, the Park Club continues to offer one of the finest challenges in western New York. The clubhouse underwent an expansion, and the new grill room was named in honor of the 1934 PGA Champion. The Runyan Room is bedecked with artifacts from that tournament, including photos, programs, and tickets. One of the photographs features Runyan and Morber in 1998, on the 18th green. It was taken moments after Runyan holed a massive putt from the back fringe to a front hole location, something that no one but a champion can muster.
Next month, the PGA of America will return to Oak Hill’s East course for its fourth PGA Championship at the storied Rochester layout. This writer will spend more than a moment recalling an event played nearly 90 years ago, at a club with Oak Hill reciprocity, in the suburbs of neighboring Buffalo.
1934 PGA Championship champion’s medal
Credit and gratitude to Heritage Auctions for the championship medal image.
Credit and gratitude to Park Country Club for all other images.